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Different expats have different purposes for learning Mandarin. We can generally divide them into two categories: one is for daily use, so they can communicate with others simply and immerse themselves more into everyday life in China; the other is for deeper learning about Chinese culture and literature. I have found that most foreigners belong to the first category, who really just need to learn oral Mandarin.

I think the main difficulty in learning Mandarin is that Chinese is such a different language system to most others. Foreigners are very often scared of Chinese characters and the 4 PinYin tones. Psychologically, they often believe it is too hard a language for them to learn even before they begin.

As a teacher with a lot of experience in teaching Chinese as an Additional Language at international schools in Shanghai, I have found that these ideas may be useful in helping you to overcome some of the barriers to learning Mandarin:

  • Try to make some Chinese friends, and try your best to overcome your embarrassment when mixing socially. Listen, observe and ask question. Be brave enough to try and speak, even just a few words.
  • Doing as much active listening as possible is helpful. Take advantage of the fact that you can listen to Chinese being spoken by Chinese-speakers in real life, such as in the supermarket, at school, at work, etc.
  • Download a Chinese language course, or listen to Chinese podcasts.
  • Learn to read PinYin at first. Chinese characters are almost always too hard for beginners. PinYin is similar to English to some extent, but you do need to take note of the 4 tones, as different tones have different meanings. When you can read some words and simple sentences, try them with your familiar friends, and then other Chinese people who aren’t familiar with you to see if they can understand you.

As a foreigner who wants to learn Chinese, don’t be afraid of this language! You need to learn like a child in many ways. Try and have as many inputs as you can: listen, speak and read frequently. One day, you will find speaking and understanding Chinese is not as hard as you first imagined!


Lily Jin is a highly experienced Mandarin teacher who has taught in international schools in Shanghai for a number of years. Formerly at the British International School Shanghai, Lily now teaches Chinese Literature and Language at YK Pao School.

Expat Essentials | Why Expats Find It So Hard To Learn Mandarin | Expat Blogs
(Image credit: Lily Jin)


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